A U.S. president and his administration saying, "Our current enemy is just like the Nazis"? That's not news. It happens all the time. What's new is that all of a sudden liberals are upset about it.
New York Times' columnist Frank Rich denounces "the White House vogue for 'Islamo-fascism'" as a "rhetorical means to retrofit Iraq to the more salable template of World War II." The Washington Post's Eugene Robinson asks: "Who Set the Wayback Machine for 1939?" He muses: "Perhaps because the term 'fascist' doesn't really describe the transnational jihadist movement, Bush called the jihadists 'the successors to fascists, to Nazis, to communists and other totalitarians' as well."
These liberal pundits are sure they know why the Bushies are pushing the "Islamo-fascism" line: They're afraid the Republicans will lose control of Congress. It's all an "ambitious propaganda campaign planned between now and Election Day," Rich says. "Absent the political context, it makes no sense," Robinson opines.
But the liberals have it backwards. Absent the political context, the administration line would still make perfect sense. Bush has been calling jihadists "successors to fascists, to Nazis, to communists and other totalitarians" for the last five years. It's the liberal objection that makes sense only in the political context. For the last 60 years, liberals have happily compared America's foes to the Nazis. Now they've discovered that it's all a terrible mistake -- because it gives them a stick to beat the Republicans on the campaign trail.
The rhetorical trick that Bush is using was invented by Harry Truman and his administration, all good card-carrying New Deal liberals. They invented the term "Red Fascism," conveniently forgetting that the red communists hated fascism and sacrificed over 20 million lives to defeat it. Throughout the cold war era, Democrats were as quick as Republicans to play on the false analogy, likening Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev to Hitler.
"Even some conservatives are making accurate analogies between Vietnam and Iraq," Frank Rich notes. Perhaps he can't see the striking analogy between Bush and another New Deal liberal, Lyndon Johnson, who told us that we had a simple choice: If we did not push on to victory in Vietnam, the only alternative was to appease the totalitarian foe. Then we would end up back at that most dreaded of all political places: Munich.
When British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain met Hitler at that German city in 1938, they struck a deal: The Germans would take part of Czechoslovakia and then stop expanding. History has excoriated Chamberlain ever since for appeasing the dictator and bragging about "peace in our time." History has forgotten that the arch-liberal FDR sent Chamberlain a two-word telegram after Munich: "Good Man."
Instead, for 60 years, Democrats as well as Republicans have used that city's name to conjure up a whole complicated ideology. It says that there are monsters lurking out there, eager to attack us. Oh, superficially they appear to be human beings like you and me. But they have no rational minds, no human feelings, no moral standards at all. They are driven by a pure spirit of evil -- what our political leaders once openly called by its real name: "sin."
Somewhere in the 20th century, it became unfashionable for U.S. officials to use that theological word, at least in public. But the old Christian idea survived intact. The human population is divided between those of us who are on God's side -- thoughtful, morally sensitive, striving for virtue -- and the minions of the devil. You can't reason with those evildoers. You certainly can't bargain or compromise with them. They are out to do evil for evil's sake, and their lust for evil knows no bounds. Whatever you give them, it just whets their appetite for more.
So when you meet the devil incarnate, there is only one way to deal with him: Brute force. Yes, this means using the devil's own tactics against him. But the analogy is just a superficial appearance. In truth, there's a world of difference.
When the devil uses violence, he is unleashing his selfish desire for power and control. And he enjoys every minute of it. When God's people use violence, they are not serving self at all. They hate having to do it. But they feel obliged to sacrifice their own selfish interests to protect the world from evil. They put their lives at risk to serve the good of others. That's the ultimate sign of their selflessness.
When the good guys violently overcome the evildoers they also prove that they are real men. They have a backbone (and a stiff one, at that). They aren't soft, weak-willed, cowardly sissies. It's the bad guys whose violence proves they are cowards. If they weren't so cowardly, they'd have the guts to stand up against evil and run any risk to defeat it -- by any means necessary.
This is the logic of the enduring "Munich analogy." And it certainly has endured. After the cold war ended, Saddam Hussein became our favorite new Hitler. Few Democrats objected when George H.W. Bush used the analogy to justify war in 1991. When Bill Clinton wanted to destroy Serbia, he relied on the media's readiness to compare Milosovich to Hitler. A week after the 9/11 attack, George W. Bush denounced the attackers because "by abandoning every value except the will to power, they follow in the path of fascism, Nazism and totalitarianism." And Democrats applauded as loudly as Republicans.
When U.S. troops invaded Iraq again in 2003, the godfather of all liberals, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., declared: "We are now going abroad to destroy a monster." The Los Angeles Times (more liberal then than now) editorialized: "If the United States and British show of force makes aggressive regimes more wary, the world will be safer." (Just to close the circle, New York Times editor Bill Keller announced that Saddam Hussein was "an avid pupil of Stalin," and his Baathist followers nothing but "Bolsheviks with an Arab accent.") Liberals have always traded on the Munich analogy.
They still do. Frank Rich has no real quarrel with it. He just wants it applied the right way (presumably the way a Democratic president would use it). Rich denounces Donald Rumsfeld for appeasing Saddam in 1983, and he suspects that our real enemies might indeed be fascists: "If we owe anything to those who died on 9/11, it is that we not forget how the administration diverted our blood and treasure from the battle against bin Laden and other stateless Islamic terrorists, fascist or whatever, to this quagmire" in Iraq. Eugene Robinson disagrees only slightly: "The fact is that the jihadists are pretty much sui generis -- they aren't fascists or Nazis and certainly aren't communists, but yes, you could make a good argument for 'totalitarians.' . Nobody wants to appease terrorists."
The early cold warriors who invented the "Nazi" and "Munich" analogies prided themselves on being "realists." Ever since then, the old theological story about God's people versus the devil, dressed in new secular garb, has passed for "reality" in liberal and centrist as well as conservative public discourse. "We have seen that evil is real," our president intoned repeatedly after 9/11. Only out here on the left-wing fringe do we see the story as a fiction that has been mistaken for reality.
It is certainly a comforting fiction. It seems to prove that we Americans are indeed the virtuous godly folk. Why else would we so bravely go out to fight the devilish monsters? If there is such an absolute dichotomy between us and the monsters -- if our policies have nothing to do with their motives for evil -- we must be wholly innocent.
The result of mistaking this story for reality is wholly predictable: violence, violence, and more violence, all supposedly justified by our righteous innocence. If that's what most Americans want -- liberals, centrists, and conservatives alike -- well this is a democracy, and they are entitled to have it. But at least let's know honestly what we are doing. Let's know that putting Democrats in power will make some things better in this nation. But it won't free us from the self-destructive clutches of the "Nazi" and "Munich" analogies.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea and the forthcoming book "Monsters to Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin." He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org